26 September 2010

CD RETRO REVIEW: Neal Morse - Sola Scriptura (2007, Metal Blade/Radiant Records)

(NB: this review was originally posted on 14 March 2007)

There are so many ways one can go about reviewing Neal Morse’s latest effort (Sola Scriptura, released on Metal Blade/Radiant Records), that it’s difficult to pick just one.

Conceptually, Sola Scriptura deals with the schism between Protestantism and the Catholic Church in the 15th Century, specifically looking at the efforts of German reformer Martin Luther to shift the church’s focus from political power, corruption and the gathering of monies through such things as indulgences (fees paid to be absolved from sin or to get into Heaven) back toward a more spiritual, Scripture-based arena (NB: Sola Scriptura, translated from the Latin, means “by Scripture alone”). It is an interesting concept, both historically and spiritually/liturgically, with a wide range of themes and ideas that could be worked into a conceptual album. Unfortunately, it is also a concept that perhaps demands more than the 76 minutes Neal has dedicated to this release (ironic, when one considers some of what will be following in this review).

Structurally speaking, Sola Scriptura is built around 3 extended epics, the shortest of which is a mere 16:34, and a shorter ballad. It is perhaps the heaviest of Neal’s post-Spocks Beard releases, with excellent contributions from a few of Neal’s most frequent guests. Mike Portnoy’s drumming is as solid as ever, showing restraint when necessary while rocking out as hard as ever when needed. Randy George, of Ajalon, shines once again on bass guitar, with a rich, beefy bass tone that cuts through the mix without bludgeoning the rest of the band. A new addition to the guest roster is “guitar god” Paul Gilbert, who adds solos on sections of the first two tracks, as well as flamenco guitar on “Two Down, One To Go” from “The Conflict.” The album is incredibly well produced, with lots of space for individual musical and vocal voices, which is impressive considering how densely orchestrated the material here is.

Sola Scriptura may well be Neal’s most controversial solo release. Placing one’s self in the shoes of an actual historical figure and trying to assign motivation and direction is a dangerous thing, and it is easy to slip from one narrative voice into a much more personal one. At times I feel just that has occurred, as lyrics seem to shift from a more historical background to allow more of Neal’s personal voice and message to shine through. Historically, much of the negativity that surrounded Martin Luther’s being has been excised from the tale told here; as well as being one of the strongest proponents of Reformation and Protestantism, Luther was well-known for some strong anti-Semitic views and beliefs. None of this is present in this album. Perhaps it is unnecessary to further the story presented by Morse (and Morse has stated that these anti-Semitic views were enough to have him reconsider releasing the album), but it is an important enough part of Luther’s historical personage to merit note.

Musically the performances contained on Sola Scriptura are among the gathered musicians’ best. Neal has likely never sounded this good vocally, and there are many sections of layered vocal harmonies that bring to mind Queen in terms of grandeur and richness. However, from a songwriting standpoint...while this is Neal’s heaviest album to date, it simply feels like more of the same. The music is familiar; one need only take a few seconds’ listen to the opening track to realise that this is a Neal Morse album. Traditional keyboard sounds and textures, multi-part track arrangements, shifts in tone from heavy rock to Latin vibe...all of these and more have been in evidence dating all the way back to The Light in 1995. Long-time fans will embrace this, it is most likely; listening to Sola Scriptura is the aural equivalent of slipping into a comfortable, well-worn pair of shoes. For this listener, there simply isn’t enough risky or new beyond the heavier sound controversially historic subject matter to show that Morse is pushing his internal or external boundaries.

Several hundred words ago I mentioned that Morse’s selection of subject matter deserved more than the 76 minutes dedicated to it on this release, and inferred that saying such was ironic considering what was to follow. Here’s the irony; having stated that the subject matter deserves more time to develop, the epic songs themselves need more judicious use of an editor’s knife. We all know Neal can write 25 minute epics the same way an ace pitcher can rack up strikeouts. On Sola Scriptura, it is easy to see where sections have been pasted together to keep a song growing in length. “The Door,” for example, features extensive quoting of previous musical passages in a manner that does not create tension through repetition. The end result is padding that could have been carefully excised, leaving a leaner but perhaps more powerful track.

Sola Scriptura is in many ways an album that defies review. Long time Neal Morse fans will buy it, digest it, and proclaim it to be his best, heaviest album yet. Others may listen to it, compare it to Spocks Beard’s latest album, and wonder why Neal can’t just go back and write with his old band. This reviewer listens to it and wonders if maybe Spocks is being far more progressive in changing their style so radically while Neal’s material, while perhaps more traditionally symphonic, has become locked in one stylistic mode.

Track Listing:
1. "The Door" - 29:14
        1. Introduction
        2. In The Name Of God
        3. All I Ask For
        4. Mercy for Sale
        5. Keep Silent
        6. Upon the Door
2. "The Conflict" - 25:00
        1. Do You Know My Name?
        2. Party to the Lie
        3. Underground
        4. Two Down, One to Go
        5. The Vineyard
        6. Already Home
3. "Heaven in My Heart" - 5:11
4. "The Conclusion" - 16:34
        1. Randy's Jam
        2. Long Night's Journey
        3. Re-Introduction
        4. Come Out of Her
        5. Clothed With the Sun
        6. In Closing...

Neal Morse: vocals, keyboards, guitar
Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater): drums/percussion
Randy George (Ajalon): bass guitar
Paul Gilbert (Racer X and Mr. Big): guitar (1, 2)

1 comment:

firefly said...

Yeah, I just don't get a good vibe from Neil's music - he seems more, to show off, but ...
I've seen him do some cool stuff with his brother - when he reaches around him to play his brother's acoustic guitar, nifty stuff.
And of course some moments in Spock's Beard and Transatlantic show promise ...
I think he has another concept CD called 'Snow' or 'Powder' which I heard is ok, but I'm not certain (about an albino guy?).
But hey, at least he's playing music and is talented! And religious, apparently!